Between a pizza joint and a playground, a small road leads into a shaded ravine. Along this road I first got to know Spikenard (Aralia racemosa) in its natural habitat.
Creek Road is a small road near a small town along the Delaware River in New Jersey. It could really be any road near any town, but for a few deeply important topographical characteristics. Because of these, it is a refuge, a throwback, a dirt track through a venerable and rich flora both unexpected and beautiful.
On one side of Creek Road, modest shale bluffs rise nearly at a vertical. These are sporadic, and not particularly tall, but they serve as a deterrent to two major destroyers of a roadside flora: overpopulated white-tailed deer, and municipal roadside mowers.
On the other side of Creek Road, the same bluffs plunge almost straight down, to the creek below. Thus, two shale walls buffer the road. They have protected this place for many centuries.
The bluffs are adorned with wild columbine, maidenhair spleenwort and Solomon's seals; and with unbrowsed (by deer) white wood aster and wreath goldenrod in the fall. Virginia waterleaf and wild ginger spread their rhizomes at the foot of the bluffs, and native yellow honeysuckle sprawls out from the top, seeking in mid-air over the road for a woody support. Thousands of Dutchman's breeches flower each spring on the mesic slopes, in interdigitating drifts with trout lily and the unfurling crosiers of Christmas fern.
My friend and occasional mentor Bill R. first showed me this place; he had likewise been shown the road by an older naturalist, years ago. He mentioned it to me, in passing, because I had been chatting him up about purple-flowering raspberry, a lovely thornless Rubus with huge rose-like blooms (they are related) and equally impressive broad, fuzzy leaves.
Purple-flowering raspberry was a plant I knew from up north in the Catskills, but had seldom then seen in New Jersey. Following on Bill's tip, I paid my first visit to Creek Road, and there it was, in big drifts on monolithic shale ten feet over the road. Its arcing canes spread just low enough so that some could be reached and the occasional fruit tasted or collected for seed.
Other plants with "northern" or "mountain" affinities grow on Creek Road too--hemlocks, great laurel, poke milkweed, bunchflower. The creek and its ravine provide a moist and shaded microclimate. Because the plant communities here are relatively undisturbed, they reflect a habitat assembled centuries, perhaps even millennia ago. There is a deeper historical imprint of climate on Creek Road's plant communities, and perhaps more cold influence, than if the area had been farmed in colonial times and were just regenerating today.
Here and there along the base of the bluffs, sometimes solitary, and sometimes in groups of many ramets, grows a truly enormous forest herb. It is perhaps the largest herbaceous forest denizen in our native flora, appearing to be a shrub in all respects but for its thick and sheathed stems which die back in winter and unfurl from the ground like giant's fists in the late spring.
The plant is spikenard, growing up to six feet tall, with sprawling compound leaflets reminiscent of coarsely rendered hearts, borne on purple stems that jut out obtusely from the main stem. While it lacks a stable and orderly geometry, it radiates plant power, with an exuberance of growth comparable to Joe Pye Weed, purple-stemmed Angelica, or cow parsnip.
Spikenard has inflorescences like starbursts, bloom-studded Sputniks borne multiply on an erect raceme. The small individual whitish flowers become dark red fruits in late summer, sweet but potent tasting, stark against the large green foliage and purplish stems.
* * *
Something happened to my perception when I first became drawn to plants; something similar perhaps has happened to other plant lovers. First, the bland world of green leaves and brown-grey barks differentiated, suddenly an exotic, eccentric, improbable, rich, and surprising visual world became apparent all around me. Then, my other senses quickened with new feelings as well, as I began to smell and taste plants as foods, beverages, medicines, and aromatic tonics.
This sheer richness of experience--walking through a world inhabited by familiars, by food and medicine plants, by plants that tell stories about a place's rocks, water, wildlife, and human land use, altered me deeply.
Exploring a new habitat, or finding a new species of plant I've never met before, has become a deeply sensual, focused, sometimes meditative and sometimes exuberant event. I say this as prologue; I want to set the stage for meeting spikenard, so you can share my feeling of awe at this titan among herbs.
* * *
Much as I admire the scientific literature on plants--I frequently scavenge facts on habitat, phylogeny, and chemistry from "academic" ecology--sometimes that literature starves my sense of awe and connection with plants. In mainstream academic science, human perceptions are at best a subjective inconvenience, and humans are most often vectors of profound disturbance.
That we too are beasts, feeding, reacting, instinctual, possessing keen senses and animal intensity, is irrelevant to the domain of contemporary scientific inquiry, where statistical analysis and computer modeling dominate discourse, where anecdotes, the senses, and experiential wisdom are not given credence
To feed my hunger for an embodied, animalistic, and cultural communion with plants, I turn instead to the literature of contemporary herbalism. Here, the potency and incredible sensual differentiation of the plant world is recognized, exalted, and rendered real in the power of herbal remedies, in their specific actions, case histories, tastes, energetics, and phytochemistry.
Not only is the plant world unfathomably diverse and variable; within each plant its chemical constituents, its actions both nutritive and medicinal, are diverse and intricate, charged with meaning that is all at once ecological, physiological and cultural.
The best of our contemporary herbalists are doing deep study with our native herbs, reaching back into traditional usage and simultaneously innovating, incorporating perspectives from ecology, chemistry, ethnobotany and the anatomical sciences, without forsaking their human identity as storytellers, sensual beings, healers, plant lovers, and keen observers of empirical evidence.
Far from being a backwater of medicine or a throwback to pre-scientific modalities, contemporary herbalists are fashioning a maverick but deeply informed synergy between disciplines and reuniting the human and the natural in foundational ways.
When the scientific studies run too dry, or simply haven't been done, when the taxonomical obsessions of botany seem to obscure direct experience rather than abet it, I turn to the words of herbalists and foragers instead, seeking a human connection, a frame that is to scale with my needs as an animal and as a cultural being.
* * *
My three-year old son Beren and I head out to our cultivated spikenard patch to dig some roots. We bring shovels - a big metal spade for me, a trowel for him. On the first spadeful of dirt I nick the large folded leafbud that was to form next years' primary shoot.
Regretting my sloppiness, I grab a short stick instead, clean and hone a broad tip, and dig with it. A digging stick may appear primitive, but it is a much superior tool for carefully extricating roots from the ground than a spade. Instead of broadly hacking the roots, a digging stick quickly removes dirt above and around each root. Three-year old Beren helps his Papa by sweeping the soil away, pretending the trowel is tractor.
Spikenard roots are thick, long and ropy, emanating octopus-like from a central crown. We excavate roots from a single plant, selecting only those spreading in one cardinal direction. They travel almost laterally for a while, eventually forking and delving downwards. They have very few fine feeder roots.
We wash the roots in a pail, quickly rubbing the soil off in warm water. Our hands come up tacky. Spikenard roots exude a sticky mucilage where injured. It feels like pinesap on the hands, and has a similar balsamic aroma. Left on the root, it solidifies as a gum-like, amber-clear mass, covering and healing the wound.
I select a root about a half-inch thick, and chew on the end. Spikenard root is long-fibrous on the inside, somewhat like ginger but softer. The exterior of the root is sheathed in a skin, not as fibrous as the inside, rather a cohesive covering. The roots are rubbery-soft, though not particularly chewy.
The first flavor I experience is sweetness. Spikenard is quite sweet, recalling parsnips and other domesticated root vegetables.
The second flavor is balsamic-- the clean, pine-like fragrance suffuses my mouth, spreading from my tongue to the roof of my mouth.
The third flavor is bitter-- somewhat soapy and acrid-- persistent but not harsh.
In between the second and third flavor, there is a hint of seafood - something I've tasted at Japanese restaurants when ordering sushi. It's been a long time, and I can't quite place it, but it's a little bit alike to the crablike flavor one obtains when cooking daikon radish.
* * *
The first time I made spikenard tea, I was at my in-laws. Not the greatest place for herbal experimentation given the mess I made, but... it was a slow morning. The root ended up leaving a ring of sticky sap all along their saucepan, a persistent slick that needed a piece of steel wool and some unknown chemical pot-scrubbing cleaner to remove.
I had put fresh spikenard root in water just boiling, then shut off the water and let the small cut up sections of root steep for about five minutes with the lid on.
Opening the lid, the balsamic aroma immediately wafted up. I noticed little droplets of oil precipitated from the roots, floating on the surface of the water. The brew was otherwise clear
Like the fresh root, the flavor of the tea opens with sweet, swells with piney fragrance, and ends on a bitter note reminiscent of cooked lemon.
The sweet and balsamic flavors are pleasant and suitable for a beverage tea, but the acrid, persistent close puts it firmly in the class of medicinal beverages. Honey added to the tea did nothing to mitigate the bitter flavor, melding instead with spikenard's innate sweetness.
* * *
In the 1920s and early 1930s, botanist and ethnographer Huron Smith studied medicinal plant uses among six Native American peoples living in Wisconsin. He was able to complete ethnobotanical studies on four tribes before his tragic death in an automobile accident in 1933: treatises on the Menominee, Meswaki, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi. His work on the Oneida was compiled posthumously in 1998. Only field notes and herbarium specimens exist for his work among the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago).
Smith was exceptional in that he combined exemplary botanical skills with ethnographic approaches, and was an astute student of herbal medicine, frequently referencing the approaches of the Eclectics and others in his comparative approach. He was also a respectful participant-observer of Native culture and was a quick study in Native languages, allowing for a deep rapport with and understanding of his informants.
Each tribe that Smith studied with utilized spikenard in different ways with some overlapping themes. Combined, the uses documented by Huron Smith offer a broad picture of the powers of the herb.
Areas of overlap include two tribes utilizing spikenard as stomach medicine, the Ho-Chunk and Menominee. Two tribes had uses pertaining to blood, as a purifier during pregnancy among the Ojibwe, or for blood poisoning among the Menominee. The theme of pregnancy was also present in Meskwaki practice, "where mothers [or infants] have it "showered" or sprayed from the mouth upon their heads, when they are giving birth [or born]."
Three tribes used the root externally, the Ho-Chunk for "boils, sores, and carbuncles" the Menominee as a poultice for sores, and the Forest Potawatomi as "a pulp to be used as a hot poultice on inflammations"
Among the Ojibwe, a hot infusion of the pounded root was drank for coughs.
By way of comparison, Cherokee uses recorded by J. T. Garrett have significant overlap with the above (cough remedy; poultice for sores, burns and boils; "blood poisoning"). Other Cherokee uses include "[a] life root for ailments of elders", a "cure-all", and use of the tea for internal aches. In contrast to the Ojibwe, Garrett's work advises against use during pregnancy.
* * *
In contemporary and historic herbals, Spikenard's tastes are reckoned to be sweet, warming, spicy, soapy, oily and aromatic. Spikenard's herbal actions are alterative, tonic, stimulant, diaphoretic, antiseptic, carminative, and digestive.
Its primary uses radiate from its tastes and energetics as its roots spread from the crown. Oily, nutritive, and warming, Spikenard lubricates, soothing irritation and inflammation. It thins mucous and stimulates flow, making it a useful expectorant. It is used for coughs, lung afflictions, head colds, and sore throats. Spikenard's warming, bitter qualities suggest its usage for improving sluggish digestion, gas, and bloating, and its general use for stomachache.
The root is used externally for wounds, sores, aches, sore eyes, burns, strains, and sprains. Spikenard improves function in clogged glands and ducts, and is used in poultice form for mastitis. It is antiseptic for topical infections such as deep cuts and sores, and for sepsis caused by a depressed tissue state. Current research indicates potential cytotoxic activity against certain breast cancer tumor cells.
Spikenard is used as a stimulant, strengthener, and as a tonic for a debilitated nervous system. It has also seen use in dropsy, edema, and anemia. It is sometimes used as a general tonic, blood purifier, and for adrenal support. It is considered by some to be an adaptogen, as are several of its relatives in the Araliaceae, including but not limited to ginseng and eleuthero.
Spikenard is an herb with well-attested traditional uses, held in high regard by some contemporary herbalists, but also obscure to some degree. Spikenard has never reached the level of contemporary popularity and regard that other native forest herbs that share its habitat like ginseng, goldenseal, and black cohosh have. With the latter becoming faddish just in the past few decades, and facing potential depletion in its natural habitats due to overharvesting, this is probably a blessing for spikenard. However, it could be just a matter of time before such a powerful, broadly useful medicinal herb is "re-discovered" by industry and marketed to a public hungry for natural solutions to health issues.
* * *
At Creek Road, spikenard grows in cool, moist soil near the bases of the low bluffs and steep roadcuts, often in nearly full sun by virtue of the opened canopy over the road and creek.
Like the Creek Road spikenards, all but one of the stations I know for this plant in my home state of New Jersey are associated with hemlocks, growing in cool, humus-rich soil in ravines just upslope of creeks. The occurrence that is an exception grows on a diabase ridgetop in the Sourlands, with rich mesic plants including stoneroot and linden, nearby a slightly drier-soil cohort of hepatica, black cohosh, black birch, mapleleaf viburnum and rattlesnake plantain.
Spikenard's association with (by New Jersey standards) northern forest types is in keeping with its general affinity for cooler areas of the United States, as evinced by range maps showing the core of its range as northern New England, westward across the Great Lakes to Wisconsin and Minnesota, with southward incursions (in the East) along the Appalachian mountain chain.
Interestingly, a completely disjunct subspecies - Aralia racemosa subsp. bicrenata occupies parts of the southwest, primarily Arizona and New Mexico. It lies at least 700 miles to the south and/or west of any known occurrence of Aralia racemosa subsp. racemosa-- the eastern form that I'm familiar with.
* * *
Phylogenetic analysis of Aralia sect. Aralia-- that is, the family and genus to which spikenard belongs according to current taxonomy-- suggests that the genus originated in the Himalayas. The oldest known fossils of the genus Aralia are from the Oligocene (between 33.9 and 23 million years before the present).
Spikenard's ancestors, and close genetic relations, radiated from the Himalayas to eastern Asia. From there, plants ancestral to spikenard crossed the Bering land bridge, sometime between 2 and 27 million years ago.
California spikenard, Aralia californica, appears to be the direct ancestor, and closest relative, of Aralia racemosa. Dispersal from western North America to the east likely occurred via the southwest, hence Aralia racemosa subsp. bicrenata. In fact, the latter species is intermediate in characteristics between A. californica and A. racemosa subsp. racemosa.
Said another way, both Aralia racemosa subspecies are likely to be descended from ancestral stock of A. californica, with the southwestern A. racemosa (subsp. bicrenata) as an intermediary step, both geographically and genetically (Wen et al 1998).
Among other things, this close genetic alliance supports the many common medicinal uses between Aralia racemosa and A. californica. Herbalist Richo Cech goes so far as to treat the two species together under the common moniker "Spikenard" (Cech 2000).
The genus Aralia is closely related to the genus Panax; both are in the Araliaceae family. Some overlap exists in appearance, ecological niches, and medicinal uses.
As Anna Fialkoff, horticulturist at the New England Wildflower Society, points out, the Araliaceae are also closely allied with the carrot family, Apiaceae, sharing:
similar characteristics, such as umbel-like inflorescences, sheathing petioles (leaf stems), and distinctively stimulating aromatics. However, with more succulent berries and solid stems than those carrot-family plants, Ginseng family members generally do best in cooler, moister climates and need humus-rich soils of mesic forests.
* * *
Spikenard flowers abundantly and bears hundreds of small berries. These are consumed and dispersed by a number of frugivorous bird species and small mammals. Spikenard berries are also eaten by bears (Noyce et al 1989).
Herbalist Matthew Wood considers Spikenard to be a "bear remedy". According to Wood, the oily brown root has a furry tuft where the stem arises from the ground-- the signature of a "bear medicine" (Wood 2009).
I've read a few second-hand stories about Bear Medicines. As the retellings go, Native Americans in some parts learned the medicinal uses of various plant species by observing the behavior of bears. I like Matthew Wood's account of Bear Medicines, for the way it blurs the lines between nature observation and spiritual awareness and credits both:
The bear is a particularly important animal for the native herbalist. This omnivorous animal digs up roots, tears off barks, and collects berries with its claws. By watching the bear, the Indian people learned about plants for medicine and food... Very often, this knowledge is derived directly from watching these animals in the wild, or in dreamtime, for many generations. (Wood 1997)
Maybe to better understand this herb, we need to return to its habitat as simple observers, receptive to the speech of its plant and animal companions, to our own animal senses, and to the dreams and intuitions it brings.
* * *
I walk through our woodland garden, admiring a swath of spikenard as tall as I am and broad as a bear. Beneath the rich loam, cords of sweet roots radiate, sheathed in sticky balsam.
As I walk, I think of Huron Smith's ethnography of the Menominee, which records "[a]n aboriginal Menomini dish [of] spikenard root, wild onion, wild gooseberry and sugar. This is described as being very fine." I'm convinced there is a way to prepare the plant to minimize its acrid aftertones and bring out its spicy sweetness. However, with native lifeways sundered and beyond my ken, and Huron Smith dead at a young age, the methods are lost to me.
Yet the yearning continues. What a perennial vegetable this could be, massive and nutritive, shade tolerant and keeping company with a diverse forest flora. I imagine myself a spikenard farmer, digging stick in hand, walking the skirt of a cool ravine, gathering waterleaf foliage, wild leeks, columbine flowers or gooseberries as I tend a massive Aralia thicket. Look for me on Creek Road.
[Originally published in Plant Healer Magazine in 2015, issue 11.
Cech, Richo (2000). Making Plant Medicine. Williams: Horizon Herbs
Edwards, Jonathan (2011). Herbal Allies: Spikenard. Roots Of Nourishment. Retrieved from http://www.rootsofnourishment.com/2011/09/herbal-allies-spikenard/
Erichsen-Brown, Charlotte (1979). Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants. New York: Dover Publications
Garrett, J.T. (2003). The Cherokee Herbal: Native Plant Medicine from the Four Directions. Rochester, Bear and Company
Hutchens, Alma R (1991). Indian Herbalogy of North America: The Definitive Guide to Native Medicinal Plants and Their Uses. Boston: Shambhala Press
Kindscher, Kelly & Hurlburt, Dana P (1998). Huron Smith's Ethnobotany of the Hoçak (Winnebago). Economic Botany 52(4), 352-372
Fialkoff, Anna (Undated). Aralia racemosa. Retrieved from http://www.newenglandwild.org/grow/featured-native-species/aralia-racemosa.html.
Moerman, Daniel E (2009). Native American Medicinal Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland: Timber Press
Moore, Michael (Undated). Aralia: Folio of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine. Retrieved from http://www.swsbm.com/FOLIOS/AraliFol.pdf
Noyce, Karen V. and Coy, Pamela L (1990). Abundance and Productivity of Bear Food Species in Different Forest Types of Northcentral Minnesota in Bears: Their Biology and Management Vol. 8, 169-181
Remington, Joseph P., Wood, Horatio C, and others (1918). The Dispensatory of the United States of America, 20th Edition. Retrieved from http://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/usdisp/index.html
Smith, Huron (1923). Ethnobotany of the Menomini Indians. Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee. Retrieved from http://www.mpm.edu/research-collections/botany/collections/ethnobotany/publications
Smith, Huron (1928). Ethnobotany of the Meskwaki Indians. Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee. Retrieved from http://www.mpm.edu/research-collections/botany/collections/ethnobotany/publications
Smith, Huron (1932). Ethnobotany of the Ojibwe Indians. Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee. Retrieved from http://www.mpm.edu/research-collections/botany/collections/ethnobotany/publications
Smith, Huron (1933). Ethnobotany of the Forest Potawatomi Indians. Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee. Retrieved from http://www.mpm.edu/research-collections/botany/collections/ethnobotany/publications
Smith, Huron. Unpublished field notes on the Oneida. Retrieved from http://www.mpm.edu/research-collections/botany/collections/ethnobotany/Oneida
Wen, J; Shi, S; Jansen, R; & Zimmer, E (1998). Phylogeny and Biogeography of Aralia sect. Aralia (Araliaceae). American Journal of Botany 85(6): 866–875
Winston, David (Undated). Traditional Research: Lung Re-Leaf Cold/Dry Compound. David Winston's Resources. Retrieved from
Wood, Matthew (2009). The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books
Wood, Matthew (1997). The Book of Herbal Wisdom. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books
 Smith published four manuscripts, in 1923, 1928, 1932, and 1933. The Ho-Chunk manuscript was revived and completed by Kindscher & Hurlburt in 1998 (see note below). The published manuscripts, his field notes, and herbarium specimens can be found in an excellent online exhibit of the Milwaukee Public Museum at http://www.mpm.edu/research-collections/botany/online-collections-research/ethnobotany
 Kindscher and Hurlburt's Huron Smith's Ethnobotany of the Hoçak (Winnebago) includes notes on Smith's ethnographic approaches and biography.
 This section is a composite of herbal references including Cech (2000), Edwards (2011), Erichsen-Brown (1979), Hutchens (1991), Moerman (2009), Moore (undated), Remington (1918), Winston (undated), and Wood (1997 and 2009)